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This stress article was the feature article in the third issue of "Coffee With Jim". Since the article was personalized, it contained the name of the subscriber at certain points. For now, pretend your name is June.

"Stress and Your Low Carb Diet"

I have to tell you about a really instructive failure I had last week.
Let me set up the situation.

To begin with, you should know that I have a constant background level of stress that comes from needing to finish my PhD dissertation. Last week the need seemed more urgent than ever, and so my stress level rose some.

I also gave exams to students, and was grading all week (not my favorite activity, and one that keeps me from doing other important things).

Also, I came home one night, and the kids were just out of control. Both wanted my attention. And my wife, Natalie, wanted my attention too. So I had three people trying to talk to me about their needs (mostly all at the same time) while I was trying frantically to figure out how I could get done everything I needed to get done.

Then Natalie said she had to go grocery shopping, and that she needed me to watch the kids. So I mentally readjusted my plans for the night, and started thinking about what I would have for dinner.

Hamburger? Or fish? Hmmm, neither one sounded all that appetizing.

Then Natalie, actually wanting to make my job easier, told me that if I needed something fun for Nate to do, there was a surprise in the freezer -- ice cream.

ICE CREAM. Ahhh. Sweet Ice Cream. Beautiful, beautiful ice cream.

I have to tell you, I've been cruising along pretty well on my diet, and wouldn't normally even be tempted by the idea that there was ice cream in the freezer. But that night ice cream sounded like the most amazing idea I had ever heard.

I wanted it.

I needed it.

I yearned for it.

And when Natalie left, .... I ate some. OK a lot.

Ahhh. It was beautiful. So comforting.

Why did I cheat on my diet that night? I think one of the main reasons has to do with stress. With this example in mind, let's take a closer look at ways stress can sabbotage a dieter's goals.


Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that puts us in a good mood. Prozac is a "selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor," and it works because it makes serotonin linger in our brains longer than normal -- rather than being taken up again.

So when we're stressed or depressed, one way to feel better is to raise the level of serotonin active in our brains. Our bodies know this, and look for ways to raise serotonin levels. And one pretty reliable way to raise serotonin levels is to eat carbohydrates.

Eating carbohydrates is a good way to counteract the psychological effects of stress. So when we're stressed, we crave carbohydrates.

Here's a cute question to help you remember this fact: What does 'stressed' spelled backwards give you?

That's right, 'desserts'.

Do you crave desserts when you feel stressed? If so, then clearly you're not alone. Count me in on that one, too.

Back in the day (perhaps the hunter-gatherer day) our stressors tended to be more physical, and less frequent, and we usually met the challenges with physical activity (e.g., running away from a bear, or physically fighting a rival).

It turns out that physical activity is another way to raise serotonin levles, and counter the psychological effects of stress. And it's a way that involves no calories (actually negative calories!)

But today the things that trigger stress -- social conflict being perhaps the greatest of these -- are constant, and we are typically discouraged from dealing with these stressors with physical means.

Social conflict is probably greater for most of us than for most human beings in the past. Life is more complicated. Among other things this means that there are more ways than ever to disappoint those who are important to us.

Also, most of us belong to different groups that might disagree with each other. Perhaps your family is Republican and your friends are all Democrats. Or your friends believe in astrology and your teachers don't or... you get the idea. This means that we are often in "no-win" situations where we can't please everyone.

In past times, to provide some contrast, human beings interacted with smaller groups that were more or less all on the same page on most issues. Thus, there was less social conflict within a person's core group of friends and family, and, hence, less stress. And when they did feel stress from social conflict, they probably were more apt to deal with it by punching the other person in the nose.

So today, when we have more social conflict, and probably more stress, we are bound to have a lot of serotonin cravings. And when carbohydrates are bountiful, and exercise is not, we are apt to have a lot of stress-related carb cravings.


There is another important hormone we have to mention. too. Surely we can't talk about stress without mentioning cortisol.

When we are in stressful situations, cortisol is secreted in our systems. Cortisol is considered a "catabolic" hormone. This means that it breaks things down. And one of the things it breaks down is the protein in your muscles, bones, and other tissues.

Now why on earth would we have a hormone that does that? Well, under some circumstances you would be very glad that you had cortisol breaking down muscle tissue.

For instance, if you were in the midst of a famine, and you hadn't eaten for a week, and there was no food in site, cortisol would help to make sure that your vital functions continued to be supplied with fuel, by converting muscle tissue into glucose.

You would need glucose for your brain far more than you would need that extra muscle tissue. So, among other things, cortisol proves to be a hormone that is quite resourceful in dire times.

But this has some indirect ramifications for someone trying to lose fat. A person with more muscle will, all else equal, burn more calories than someone with less muscle. So one way to improve your metabolism so that you can eat the same amount of calories and still lose weight, is to build muscle.

But if you run around with a lot of stress all the time, cortisol will be constantly breaking down muscle tissue, and you may lose some muscle mass overall. And even if you maintain your muscle mass through stressful times, you probably are doing so with the help of weight training. Imagine how much more muscle you could build if you didn't have cortisol constantly tearing the muscle tissue back down while you're trying to build it up.

So if you're dieting, and want the extra metabolic edge that comes from having more muscle, stress is not your friend.


Fortunately there are things that can be done about stress. And if you are trying to lose weight, especially on a low carb diet, you will want to do as many of these things as you can.

With that in mind, stay tuned. I plan to devote a future issue to many of the ways we can deal with stress.

In case you're curious, I consulted two main reference works in writing this article. The first is "Natural Hormonal Enhancement" by Rob Faigin. And the other is "The Ketogenic Diet" by Lyle McDonald.

Return to the Back Issues Of
"Coffee With Jim" Low Carb Articles Index . . .

Jim Stone is the author of "Stop Cheating
On Your Low Carb Diet!", found at
Jim also offers a free monthly newsletter at


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